Parallel Moments-- Raymond MacDonald & Marilyn Crispell

The best free jazz is that which retains some semblance of form while also containing sensitive and intuitive interaction between its participants, rather than giving the impression of ships passing blindly and haphazardly through the dark night. These 10 duets from Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and American pianist Marilyn Crispell, recorded in either live or studio settings in London in November 2010, are free improvisation done right. No composing credits are listed for these 10 pieces, which would seem to indicate little or no pre-planning regarding structure or thematic elements, although these two experienced and creative musicians make it appear otherwise. MacDonald, the co-founder of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, has recorded prolifically and worked with such artists as David Byrne, Jim O'Rourke, Evan Parker, and Fred Frith, while also composing for various art forms. Crispell also has numerous albums as a leader on her resume, and is perhaps best known for her long associations with both Anthony Braxton and Reggie Workman.

Crispell's ringing chords and MacDonald's serene legato alto tones initiate "Longing," which gradually turns to a more intense, freely emotional attack by the saxophonist. As he whirls and flutters, Crispell generally maintains her stable and sparse chordal base, a contrast that works wonderfully to underscore this performance's title. "Town and City Halls" also begins subtly, as Crispell's gentle single notes alternate with MacDonald's sustained ones. MacDonald's following bird-like, blues tinged phrases are answered by tumbling lower register runs and brisk clusters from Crispell, and his succeeding circular breathing interlude and appealingly varied textures again are in sympathetic accord with his partner's input. "Conversation" finds Crispell setting the stage with an atonal stream of notes as MacDonald keeps one wavering and then quivering at length. MacDonald then modifies his alto's pitch and even evokes a foghorn as he passes in and out of Crispell's reflections. When he becomes more demonstrative and insistent in his winding chatter, Crispell responds in kind with pronounced chords and motifs, with the spurting concluding minutes of this 11:09 track a captivating example of two mature players in spontaneous yet harmonious alignment.

"A Subtle Freedom" is somewhat similar in approach to the opening of "Town and City Halls," and this 2:37 miniature features Crispell's stark tone configurations interweaving with MacDonald's plaintive legato outcries. "Notes in the Sky" is turbulent at the onset, MacDonald's swirling or bleating soprano assertions meshing constructively with Crispell's resounding observations. Turning pensive, like a sigh or release, the pianist is then heard reacting to and rearranging MacDonald's phrasings in an extended lyrical segment. MacDonald thereafter resumes his starting exclamatory foray, and Crispell gravitates seamlessly into his mindset with an instinctive grasp for the duration of the CD's second longest selection (10:55). "Illumination" projects a spiritual aura, with MacDonald's elongated tones and phrases on alto somewhat remindful of Jan Garbarek, while Crispell's delicate probings again offer a divergent character. Eventually MacDonald's tempestuous squeals and twirls dominate a subsiding Crispell.

MacDonald's soprano sounds eerily like Steve Lacy's during "Flame," as he plays an elliptical Lacy-like theme above Crispell's chiming, unadorned individual notes, but this promising start regrettably bows out in just under two minutes. A mysterious or ominous soundscape is created for "Sun Song" through MacDonald's breathy or tremulous vibrato on soprano and Crispell's bell-like piano string formulations that alternate with her more cavernous outpourings. The title track, "Parallel Moments," is by far the most avant-garde, as Crispell urgently manipulates her instrument's strings percussively and MacDonald's alto builds tension through his furious circular breathing. Yet there is still a method to their "madness," and an obvious cohesiveness amidst the unfettered expression. The changes in dynamic levels and Crispell's rumbling return to the piano keys generate additional textural interest. "Distant Voices" is the third and final of the recording's three miniatures, with MacDonald's shivering and/or throbbing alto in the forefront and Crispell's rubbing of the piano strings barely more audible than a heartbeat.

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Scott Albin